Two sides of a barrier

December 5, 2016

by Tao Geoghegan Hart

Looking up the street, coloured logos snake off far into the distance. A truck crawls the pavement, luminous figures slowly unloading. Their fatigue, as they near the end of their seventh night shift on the trot, completely unbeknown to the chance onlooker.

As the sun sets, the street lights flicker on, momentarily splattering incandescent warmth. The bulbs soon steady their glow, illuminating the pavestones below and emphasising the many small circles of trodden chewing gum. The night before saw all manner of strange objects unravel upon my doorstep, sprawling in all directions and engulfing the little space that exists. As the red hazard lights of the truck disappear in to the night, the colourful banners littering the kitchen window at least remind me to pay the electricity bill.

The next morning barriers line the street, standing defiantly in my path to the corner shop for a Sunday paper and pint of milk. Luminous figures once again roam, bustling along the narrowing pavement whilst dodging dog shit and piles of early-autumn leaves.

As the day rolls on, the crowds gather and the street becomes increasingly frenzied. They lean far in to the road, gazing longingly, hands clasped and anticipation evidently building. They chatter about the events to unfold and flaunt caps, shirts and bags, heavily laden with a myriad of foreign logo’s. Across the barriers nothing is happening and yet they are curiously entertained by it all. I close my front door and turning the radio up a little louder, flick the kettle on.

We are ninety kilometres in to what has so far been a pretty flat day, meandering a little aimlessly through the Cotswolds. Out of nowhere, perhaps because I am almost looking for something to liven my day up, something catches my eye. I gesture to my teammate to the left, coming a little closer, before communicating that I think something might happen in the coming moments. I move up a little, venturing in to the top fifteen of the large peloton, my team mate firmly on my wheel.

We hit a succession of small climbs shortly after. The pace very slightly edges up, probably unnoticed to those who chat away at the back of the peloton, or simply dismissed as the somewhat unnecessary pre-feedzone tussle that happens on some stages. The street is quite narrow and I can hear individual voices from the pavement just to my right, a small child stands ever-so-close, clapping and shouting as we pass.

I hook my feedbag, quickly shipping it over my shoulder but unable to immediately unload its contents to my jersey pockets. The pace has again crept higher, threatening to boil over. I take one bottle, then another, before fishing deeper inside the bag, my right hand clasping various packaged items blindly behind my back before finding what it wants. The bag, now all but empty, flies unceremoniously to the feet of a woman to my side. I chance a glance behind. The peloton is lined out. The pace, the small rises and the minor organised-chaos of the feed zone have reduced the lazy bunched up group to a long slender slither.

We hit a twisting descent and a rider in blue pulls to the left, mouth to radio, rear wheel shuddering as it slams against the road, the tyre that would normally protect it void of all air. I concentrate on the fast corners, wondering who is on the front, my own tyres close to their limit at this speed as we fly around another twisting bend. Another all blue jersey pulls out the line, this time a double puncture, cat-eye’s causing trouble and not for the first time.

The speed continues to ramp up as we crest a small steep rise, before plummeting immediately back downward. Now I know there will be serious problems behind, because even here, safely in the top fifteen, it is strenuous. The Motorbike just ahead shows the gap to the breakaway tumbling, over two minutes lost in the scant kilometres since the feedzone. And as I chance another look back, there are barely twenty riders left and there is clear daylight to the group behind, now almost out of sight. There will be some serious panic back there.

Saturday afternoon’s Football Focus drifts faintly through the house, afternoon goals rattling in and commentators’ voices describing their celebrations, the paper lies half open on the table and the sink is piled high. But it is the commotion outside that has somehow grasped a hold of my attention.

Directly outside my front door is a grey pole. People clamber all over it, searching for a better view of the road. Atop is a thick red circle, an equally red ’30’ resplendent in its centre. I watch as a small girl balances precariously between the pole and the barrier as, with little warning, an open top car and several police motorbikes suddenly speed past behind her. Evidently on this occasion existing high above the bold red law. The crowds seem to lurch ever more feverous, the anticipation now at breaking point. It sparks something inside me, an excitement I thought I had long since forgotten, a childhood tremble in my stomach. What comes next.

The bunch split when nobody had quite expected it to and now patched back together, the nervousness of it happening again is evident. Elbows touch, words once exchanged lackadaisically fall silent and hands grip ever tighter. After a long day, the place I often feel the most pain is in my neck, the tension building up from nervous moments such as this. I’ll feel these kilometres on the massage table later.

We come speeding around a corner, before splitting either side of a roundabout and bombing in to the midst of yet another town filled to the rafters with spectators. For a moment I am actually glad the speed is so high. It means that in spite of the fight to be at the front, the bunch has thinned out slightly, giving some much needed breathing space between my handlebars and the many clapping hands, swinging bells and camera phones waving inches away.

A little down the street I find a gap, directly outside number 98. I manage to squeeze in just as everyone starts to go wild. It is almost impossible to distinguish what passes, my eyes simply processing an obscure tangle of shining legs, bright colours and spinning wheels. I grip the barriers, standing in awe.

I concentrate on the corner coming up, but as we slow in to it, I start to pick up individual claps, shouts and expressions from within the crowd. A few banners swing somewhat precariously high above them, pun’s using riders names adorning their breadth, scrawled in squiggled handwriting. Suddenly a rider infront sends his wheel shooting backward, rising out of the saddle to stretch his back and receiving a flurry of abuse as he almost causes a crash in the process. I remind myself I must focus, regardless of everything that is going on around me.

The energy of the moment spills across from the road, infecting all, myself included. It is late afternoon now, the air still just about lacking a winter chill. As the roar around me builds momentum, the riders flying past, I begin to warm inside. I watch as my neighbours lean far over the barriers, children’s eyes light up and strangers collectively scream on the frenzied swarm.

I spot someone. It’s only for a second, but her reservation, mixed so clearly with a bubbling excitement, is written all across her face. Her expression is striking and utterly distinct, even amongst the melee of the race, amongst seven crazy days on the road, amongst a near lap of the country. Her eyes, watching us dart past, reveal so much. A jumble of fear and exhilaration gazing out in to the road.

The noise of the crowd is like a wave, flowing through each and every street that we turn down. It’s invigorating and leaves the subsequent country lanes with an almost eerie emptiness about them. And as everything slowly settles back down again, the nervousness of moments earlier dissipating from within, with over a hundred kilometres left to race, I think again of that face. As we charge on, I race on, hoping we might have left even the vaguest of meaningful impression on her Saturday afternoon.

All photos by Samuel Cook.

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